MS Achille Lauro was a cruise ship based in Naples, Italy. Built between 1939 and 1947 as MS Willem Ruys, a passenger liner for the Rotterdamsche Lloyd, she was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985.
In other incidents, she also suffered two serious collisions (in 1953 with the MS Oranje and in 1975 with the cargo ship Youseff) and four onboard fires or explosions (in 1965, 1972, 1981, and 1994). In the last of these, in 1994, the ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean off Somalia.
Concept and construction
Ordered in 1938 to replace the aging ships on the Dutch East Indies route, her keel was laid in 1939 at De Schelde shipyard in Vlissingen, Netherlands, for Rotterdamsche Lloyd (now Nedlloyd). Interrupted by World War II and two bombing raids, the ship was finally launched in July 1946, as Willem Ruys. The ship was named after the grandson of the founder of the Rotterdamsche Lloyd who was taken hostage and shot during the war.
Willem Ruys was completed in late 1947. At that time, the Rotterdamsche Lloyd had been granted a royal prefix in honor of its services during the war. Willem Ruys was 192 metres (630 ft) in length, 25 metres (82 ft) in beam, had a draught of 8.9 metres (29.2 ft), and measured 21,119 gross register tons. Eight Sulzer engines drove two propellers. She could accommodate 900 passengers. She featured a superstructure very different from other liners of that era; Willem Ruys pioneered low-slung aluminium lifeboats, within the upper-works' flanks. The next ship to adopt this unique arrangement was the SS Canberra in 1961. Today, all cruise ships follow this layout, with fibreglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) used for lifeboat hulls.
As the Willem Ruys
On the East Indies route
As Willem Ruys, the ship began her maiden voyage on 5 December 1947. Together with her main competitor and running mate, the MS Oranje of the Netherland Line, she became a popular fixture on the Dutch East Indies route. However, when the East Indies gained independence from The Netherlands in 1949, passengers numbers decreased.
Collision with Oranje
On 6 January 1953, Willem Ruys collided in the Red Sea with running mate MS Oranje, which was heading in the opposite direction. At that time, it was common for passenger ships to pass each other at close range to entertain their passengers. During the (later heavily criticized) abrupt and fast approach of Oranje, Willem Ruys made an unexpected swing to the left, resulting in a collision. It was a near-miss disaster. Oranje badly damaged her bow. Due to the possibility that she would be impounded for safety reasons, she was unable to call at Colombo as scheduled, and went directly to Jakarta. Willem Ruys suffered less damage. There was no loss of life involved. Later, it was determined that miscommunication on both ships had caused the collision.
Journey to Java
During 1957, the English diplomat, author and diarist Harold Nicolson and his wife, the author and poet Vita Sackville-West, toured the Far East for two months aboard Willem Ruys. The voyage is documented in "Journey to Java", his published journal of the trip, which provides a detailed account of first class travel on the vessel in the 1950s.
In 1958, the Royal Rotterdamsche Lloyd and the Netherland Line signed a co-operative agreement to create a round-the-world passenger service. The joint fleet would sail under the banner of "The Royal Dutch Mail Ships". Together with Oranje and Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, Willem Ruys underwent an extensive refit to prepare her for this new service. She made two charter trips to Montreal for the Europa-Canada service. Then, from 20 September 1958, until 25 February 1959, she underwent a major facelift at the Wilton-Fijenoord shipyard in Amsterdam, turning her from a passenger liner into a cruise ship. Her original four class distinctions became First and Tourist Class. A hundred new cabins were installed and air-conditioning was extended throughout all accommodations. The Javanese crew members were replaced by Europeans, who required upgraded crew accommodation. Externally, she was fitted with a new glazed in Tourist Class Wintergarden, her forward funnel was heightened and stabilizers were fitted. Willem Ruys was now able to accommodate 275 first class, and 770 tourist class passengers, although there were many interchangeable cabins which had additional berths fitted, which could increase the maximum passenger number to 1167. Her new specifications would see her tonnage increase from 21,119 to 23,114 gross register ton.
On 7 March 1959, Willem Ruys went off on her new world service to Australia and New Zealand. She departed from Rotterdam, sailing via Southampton, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, Fremantle, Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand, returning via the Panama Canal. The Royal Dutch Mail Ships (Willem Ruys, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and Oranje) became a popular alternative to the British liners.
At the end of 1964, due to a strong drop in passenger numbers, Willem Ruys was laid up in Rotterdam and put up for sale.
As Achille Lauro
In 1965, she was sold to the Flotta Lauro Line, or Star Lauro, (now MSC Cruises) and renamed Achille Lauro after the company's owner. She was extensively rebuilt and modernized after an August 1965 onboard explosion, and entered service in 1966 carrying passengers to Sydney, Australia. The ship played a role in evacuating the families of British servicemen caught up in unrest in Aden, and made one of the last northbound transits through the Suez Canal before its closure during the Six Day War.
Achille Lauro was converted to a cruise ship in early 1972, during which time she suffered a disastrous fire. A 1975 collision with the cargo ship Youseff resulted in the sinking of the latter, and another onboard fire in 1981 took her out of service for a time. She was laid up in Tenerife when Lauro Lines went bankrupt in 1982. The Chandris Line took possession of her under a charter arrangement in 1985, shortly before the hijacking.
On 7 October 1985, four members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) took control of the liner off Egypt as she was sailing from Alexandria to Port Said. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. After being refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers killed disabled Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and then threw his body overboard.
The ship then headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner in exchange for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner. This plane, however, was intercepted by US fighter aircraft and directed to land in Sicily, where the hijackers were to be tried for murder, but could not be extradited. The hijackers were later given passage to Yugoslavia after being paroled by the Italians and escaped.
Later years, fire, and sinking
The ship continued in service; she was reflagged in 1987 when the Lauro Line was taken over by the Mediterranean Shipping Company to become StarLauro. On 30 November 1994, she caught fire off the coast of Somalia while en route to South Africa. At that time, Italian officials said the fire had been caused by a discarded cigarette, but it actually began in the engine room after one of the engines exploded. Because of a lack of supervision, the fire burned out-of-control before its discovery. The crew tried to battle the fire for several hours but were unsuccessful. The vessel was abandoned and sank on 2 December 1994.